“If history is written by the winners, what happens to the rest of us?”
Once on the faculty of a prestigious university, undervalued history professor Lewis Birch (Griffin Dunne) is now working at a bush-league community college and wondering where it all went wrong. For Lewis, making sense of the disappointments of his life is as difficult as the decade-long struggle to finish a 6,000-page masterwork on the 1804 Corps of Discovery Expedition. Attempting to reclaim his own narrative by rewriting the history of a nation, Lewis gets his shot at self-validation (and a better publishing deal) when he’s invited to present his ideas at a bigwig academic conference.
Like the pioneers before him, the dishevelled, divorced dad of two makes his way westward from New York with estranged kids in tow. Promising them the Pacific Ocean, Lewis hopes to build a bond with his gormless stoner son Jack (American Horror Story’s Devon Graye) and his hard-to-impress vegan daughter Zoe (Californication’s Madeline Martin), whose inflectionless responses find fault in everything. They’ve not been on the road long when Lewis gets a call informing him his mother has passed away and his father Stanley (Stuart Margolin) is in a state of shock. Forced to go on annual Corps of Discovery re-enactments as a child, Lewis must endure his father's fancy-dress fantasy one more time as a way of helping him get his mind off his recent bereavement. Among a community of fanatical history buffs strictly forbidding the use of modern technology and anachronistic garms, the Birches are stripped of all that is urban and familiar – an especially horrifying prospect for the kids, connected by umbilical to their iPods. Lost in the woods and living off the land, the act of going back to nature puts the focus back on family and they begin to see their troubled relationships afresh.
Holding profoundly different opinions, the uncommon ground of history is the only way Lewis knows how to communicate with his father, his desire to be published seemingly more about winning his father’s approval than literary accolades. Adopting a revisionist viewpoint allows Lewis to work through some unresolved daddy issues, engaging his father in conversation while also pissing him off as much as possible. But for all the focus on tensions between Lewis and Stanley, The Discoverers carefully spends just as much time developing the father-daughter relationship.
Lifting the material above its inherent quirkiness, Griffin Dunne and Madeline Martin give instantly likable, enormously human performances. Dunne exudes the kind of rakish, world-weary spirit at which he excels, and after six seasons of practised putdowns on Californication, Martin is perfectly cast as the daughter with an overdeveloped sense of sarcasm. Lending solid support are Compliance co-stars Dreama Walker and Ann Dowd, and the film benefits hugely from the lens of Meek’s Cutoff cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, employing a similarly plaintive but more pastoral lyricism.
Sincerely bittersweet and keeping sentiment in check, the time travel angle and developed central relationships make Justin Schwarz’s debut feel a lot less formulaic than so many other dysfunctional family stories in the Sundance slush pile.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @timothyeraw